How Camera Angles Affect a Viewer's Emotions

By Robert Russell ; Updated September 15, 2017
A close-up of a video camera mounted onto a crane to capture an outdoor shot.

Movies are a form of visual storytelling that often affect the viewer on an emotional level; the camera frames the way you see the image that tells the story. The emotional impact of a film operates on a number of levels including the script, acting and soundtrack. One of the most important tools in filmmaking, however, is the camera and its angles used to convey action or stillness. The strategic placement of the camera can convey a character's reactions, enhance the landscape and induce deep feelings regarding a character's circumstances -- all of which affect the viewer's emotions.

Subject Size

The size of the subject(s) in the frame elicits different emotional reactions from the viewer. The camera can shoot at a distance or move in for a close-up. According to Videomaker, “Close shots tend to be intense.” The camera emphasizes the importance of the subject or the scene when it moves in closer. A lot of emotions are conveyed through the eyes and facial expressions of the subject. Clint Eastwood used close-ups in “Fistful of Dollars” to convey the stress and tension among the characters of the movie. Eastwood's close-ups in the movie also help the viewer to identify with the emotions of the characters and anticipate their reactions.

Long Distance Shots

Shots that emphasize spatial distance can elicit feelings of detachment, alienation, tension, anxiety and uncertainty. One of the best examples is in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence, played by Peter O Toole, along with the Arab escort, stops at a watering hole in the desert. A figure (Omar Shariff) appears in the very far distance. It is unclear if the figure is friend or foe. The frame captures the huge vastness and uncertainty of the desert that increases suspense in the audience. Lawrence is baffled as his escort grabs a rifle and is shot and killed by the shadowy figure in the distance. The long distance shot allows the viewer to identify with Lawrence's uncertainty and anxiety since the viewer sees the shadowy figure from Lawrence's perspective.

Low-Angle Shots

Placing the camera at a low angle produces different emotional responses in the viewer. Depending on the storyline, the low-angle shot encourages the viewer to interpret the subject as strong and powerful or as imposing and intimidating and so forth. The figure towers over the viewer similar to the way that adults tower over children. One of the revolutionary techniques in “Citizen Kane” was Orson Welles’ use of low-angle camera shots. Kane’s persona as an imposing personality is reinforced by low-angle shots.

High-Angle Shots

Welles also used high-angle shots in "Citizen Kane." The emotional effects of a high-angle shot produce opposite effects from the low-angle shot. The viewer tends to perceive the subject on the screen as more vulnerable and weaker. A character looking up towards the camera may elicit feelings of empathy or sympathy from the viewer. The emotional impact obviously depends on the storyline and context of the film. High-angles can also serve a larger abstract purpose. The bird’s eye view lets us see the overall context or location of story. In doing so, it gives us a sense of proportion about the lives of the characters. A bird’s eye view camera perspective is similar to the voice of a universal narrator in a novel.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.